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The Ebola epidemic is still far from being under control, but a few successes show it can be slowed down, the World Health Organization said Monday.
About 16,000 cases of Ebola have been reported in West Africa and more than 5,600 people have died, but the case count is slowing in Liberia and stable in Guinea, WHO assistant secretary-general Bruce Aylward said. However, the most optimistic forecasts don’t have the epidemic under control until the middle of next year and even that might not be possible without stepped-up aid efforts.
In some areas, aid groups and WHO have achieved their goal of making 70 percent of all burials safe, Aylward said. But the virus is still spreading out of control in western Sierra Leone and it’s moved to rural, hard-to-reach areas.
“There is no room for optimism as long as you are dealing with an Ebola virus,” Aylward told a news conference.
“The disease has already started to slow down in some areas,” he added. That includes parts of Liberia, and the two major cities in Guinea: Gueckedou and Conakry.
“There is no room for optimism as long as you are dealing with an Ebola virus."
“The good news … is that in all three countries it is clear now that more than 70 percent of the Ebola deaths that we know about are buried safely.”
Safe burials are one of the three keys to stopping an Ebola outbreak, WHO says. The other two are immediate isolation of patients before they can infect others, and meticulous tracing of all people who have been in contact with a patient so they can be watched and isolated if need be.
Much of the spread of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea can be blamed on funeral practices that are similar to burials around the world — washing the body and hugging or kissing the body. Ebola virus builds up in patients as they get sicker and the bodies of people who die of Ebola are frequently awash with the virus.
So people have to be first persuaded and then helped to change their practices.
“A couple of really bad burials and couple of really bad events and couple of really bad infections in hospital settings — things can really turn around quickly,” Aylward said.
And people are still carrying the virus from one region to another.
"The intensity of the Ebola transmission in some parts of Sierra Leone is very high, and the situation is getting serious each day and could worsen,” U.N. Ebola chief Dr. David Nabarro told reporters in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
But aid efforts are having an effect. Ebola treatment units, safe burial teams and teams of experts tracing contacts have started to change the trajectory of infections in some areas, Aylward said.
“In the last 60 days across the three countries, there has basically been a doubling of (the number of) Ebola beds,” Aylward said.
In Sierra Leone, for example, there were 267 beds devoted to treating Ebola patients in September. Now there are 650. And treating people does make a difference. Aylward said the death rate is about 90 percent for people who don’t get any treatment at all, while it drops to about 60 percent for those who are treated.
“Very definitely you can catch up with Ebola, even on this scale. That is a very important message,” Aylward said.
"The risk is still very, very high."
Still, more money, people are supplies are desperately needed. WHO said $1.55 billion was needed for the immediate response, but so far only $920 million has been spent. “Gaps in funding result in real gaps in operations,” he said.
And it doesn’t take long for people to become complacent. In Liberia, for example, Aylward says he has seen “people cramming into taxis again and you were already seeing a little bit of loosening of that handwashing behavior.”
“The risk is still very, very high,” he added.
So long as there’s a single case of Ebola, he said, the risk remains that it will spread.
“This all began with one case. You’ve got to find every single case.”